Politics postsSaturday July 18, 2015
Does a Change of Heart Change the Status Quo? Thoughts on Atticus, Gladwell and Dickens
A good read in the wake of the Atticus Finch revelations in “To Set a Watchman” is Malcolm Gladwell's 2009 article, “The Courthouse Ring,” about progressive moderates like Big Jim Folsom, a two-term governor of Alabama in the early 1950s, and how such moderates vanished from the stage in the strident aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Gladwell suggests that Atticus Finch was similar to Folsom in that he didn't want to change the system; he just wanted to change people's hearts.
“He's not Thurgood Marshall looking for racial salvation through the law,” Gladwell writes. “He's Jim Folsom, looking for racial salvation through hearts and minds.”
Gladwell's reading of the pro-jurisprudence Atticus of “Mockingbird,” in other words, anticipates the anti-Brown Atticus of “Watchman.”
All well and good. But I don't know how much I agree with Gladwell's criticism of moderates in general. He extrapolates beyond Atticus and Folsom, and brings in George Orwell's classic criticism of Charles Dickens. Orwell suggested that Dickens disapproved of “Dickensian” conditions without suggesting (or even desiring?) a change in the status quo. It's really one of the classic arguments of the left: Is the problem corrupt men or a corrupt system? And if you change the hearts of corrupt men, can that change the heart of a corrupt system?
Here's the quote I disagree with:
[Dickens] believed in the power of changing hearts, and that's what you believe in, Orwell says, if you “do not wish to endanger the status quo.”
I think that goes too far. Ten years ago, the issue of gay marriage was such a boon to the far right that the GOP put gay-marriage bans on state ballots to get out the vote for major elections; to get out their kind of people. And it worked. Folks in Oregon and Michigan and Georgia and Ohio voted to ban gay marriage. Ten years later? The opposite. From 2005 to 2015, there was a 20-percentage-point progressive shift in how Americans felt about gay marriage. Why? I would suggest that enough gay people came out to enough people who loved them that those people had a change of heart. And that change of heart changed the status quo. And that's why we are where we are.
But the above discussion also points out the danger we're in post-Obergefell. Progressives won that battle, just as, generations earlier, they won the battles over Brown, and Loving, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Progressives won all of those battles but they lost the war to Nixon, and then Reagan, as the politics of resentment trumped the politics of inclusion. Social progress couldn't be turned back but economic progress could. As a result, in my lifetime, we've had social progress (Brown, et al.) but economic regress (a movement toward oligarchy). And if that happened again now? After Obergefell? I doubt the middle class could take it.
Melting Guns into Crosses
In the aftermath of the murders of nine black churchgoers by a white supremacist in Charleston, S.C. this week, and the various Confederate flag/gun control debates that have followed, I've been reading an excellent New Yorker profile by Connie Bruck on Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), a cool, insider technocrat, doing battle with both the CIA and (sadly) the White House over the efficacy and morality of torture in our post-9/11 world. In the midst of that, we get this background:
In 1992, she ran for the Senate against an incumbent Republican, John Seymour. In their biggest debate, her political consultant Bill Carrick recalled, Seymour charged that Feinstein, a strong advocate of gun control, had owned a handgun. “Dianne explained that at one point the ['70s left-wing guerilla group] New World Liberation Front had planted a bomb in a flower box outside her daughter Katherine's bedroom window,” Carrick said. “And, yes, she had gotten a gun. But, she said, after a while she realized it would do no good. She launched a citywide campaign, urging San Franciscans to turn in their guns. And she concluded, 'The Pope was coming to town. So we melted down all these guns we'd collected and gave them to him, in the form of a cross.' ” Feinstein won easily.
Would that South Carolina had similar leaders.
The Real White Walker
From Dan Kaufman's must-read piece, “Scott Walker and the Fate of the Union,” which appeared in yesterday's New York Times:
Last fall, [president of Local 139, Terry] McGowan met with Walker, who was seeking a contribution and another endorsement for governor, at a small campaign office in Wauwatosa, outside Milwaukee. “I looked across the table at him, and I said, 'We are both God-fearing men,' ” McGowan told me. “ 'If you can tell me that right-to-work will not come on your desk, then I will take you for your word.' He looked me in the eyes, and he said, 'It will not make it to my desk.' He was looking for a contribution, and I was looking for a commitment. We both got what we came for. He kept his, and I lost mine.”
You can't read the piece without wondering whether Scott Walker is the worst person in the world.
Your Go-To Stat In Case Any Asshole Complains About How Much Teachers Make
[Pres. Obama] pointed out that the top 25 hedge-fund managers made more money last year than all the kindergarten teachers in the country.
It's from Paul Ellie's New Yorker post, “The President and Poverty,” which misses an obvious cultural point. It's all about how important issues back in the day (early 1960s) were put into books, read by presidents, and things got done. Now they're put into books, read by presidents, and things don't get done.
Elie finds fault here:
... because an obstinate Congress holds the President and the poor in equal contempt, rendering the world's most-powerful man something like an armchair public-policy analyst rather than a policy maker.
But I blame us, too. We're not, in Gore Vidal's phrase, a serious people. We don't follow the news (unless it's tragedy or gossip or both), we don't read serious books, we don't have serious conversations. We're children: We keep asking Hollywood to tell us the same story over and over again, and that story stars superheroes.
Oh, and those hedge-fund managers? They pay only 15 percent in taxes. Less than you, most likely.
5/15 ADDENDUM: The Washington Post crunches the numbers on the stat. It's worse than I thought. What does it say about a country that the pay of 25 hedge-fund managers > the pay of 158,000 kindergarten teachers? And what does it say that the pay of teachers is a GOP/FOX News talking point? That we debate that rather than the pay of hedge-fund managers? And don't debate that those 25 hedge-fund managers pay less in taxes than those 158,000 kindergarten teachers?
'In the Republican Party, Crazy is a Constituency'
Bill Maher mocks the tea-party crazies who think Pres. Obama and the U.S. military, via “Jade Helm 15,” are planning to invade Texas and impose martial law:
You rural white people who say “Don't mess with Texas”? Let me tell you something: You are among the most left-alone, least messed-with people on the planet. You can carry an assault rifle into Chili's, what more do you want? The right to do it shirtless? You're practically your own independent country now. You've outlawed abortion, you've gutted government regulations, you're armed to the teeth, you're the white Somalia. Stop worrying about getting sucked into the New World Order, you're barely in the current world order.
I would add a rant about the commentators on the left, who tend to offer, “Yes, but ...” reactions to the conspiracy theory. Yes, it's a bit crazy, but it's rooted in the militarization of our police force. Except it really isn't. The conspiracy theorists love their military, they love their guns, they just don't love their current president. Imagine if Pres. Bush were still in office. Would this conspiracy theory have legs? No. If this were 2006, “Jade Helm 15” military exercises wouldn't be a source for conspiracy theories but an excuse for another barbecue. Shirtless.
ADDENDUM: Amy Davidson of The New Yorker clarifies matters without false equivalencies.